George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, took up painting as a hobby after his time in office. And while some have seen a mirror of Bush’s own simple-mindedness in the simplicity of his work, his paintings are an effort for the former leader of the free world to remember the past, make sense of the present, and look onto the future and how he will then be seen. 

Through his series of self-portraits and portraits of world leaders, George Bush Jr. is on a journey to rediscover the simplicity of the life of a private individual, away from the spotlight, and to re-exlpore his time as a public figure. They are a conflicting effort to both shed his presidential status while trying to immortalize his presidency.

Retiring from public life

The series of self-portraits of George W. Bush in the bathroom have been interpreted many ways. Recoiling from the water as he did during the Hurricane Katrina crisis, watching the faucet run remembering the waterboarding scandal, and generally cleansing the (many) mistakes of his presidency.

But the real meaning of these paintings isn’t in veiled allusions to various defining moments of Bush’s eight years as president. The true message is in plain sight. And it’s brutally honest: it is the journey of a man from the height of political power to quasi-anonymity. George Bush is shedding his presidential garb.

He is stark naked, in the most intimate setting. The kind of intimacy the former president is rediscovering after a carreer in the public eye. In between boredom and simple pleasure, only the president can see himself now that he is retired. And Bush’s retirement seems to be a very reflective one – not only as he only sees himself in the mirror rather than on TV screens and covers of newspapers – but also because he seems to enjoy the peace and quiet that allows for deep introspection.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen my toes in years” are one of the few observations that former presidents and people on a diet can share.

Faces of power

Bush’s other series of paintings depicting the faces of world leaders reveal the former president’s introspective, almost nostalgic mood. While some have argued that their apparent simplicity is the sign of Bush Jr.’s lack of technique – a statement he would probably agree with himself – the point of their simplicity lies elsewhere. Bush is painting world leaders as he knew them when he was a world leader: as equals. No aura, no decorum, no filter.

The Dalai Lama’s sarcastic smile, Angela Merkel’s can-do attitude, Silvio Berlusconi’s grin like he just told a dirty joke – Bush lays them bare, as he knew them behind closed doors. In that respect, the example that epitomizes how Bush’s simple technique – or rather complete lack thereof – is used to great effect is in his portrait of Vladimir Putin.

Whereas his other portraits are all very expressive, with deep lines running through his subjects’ faces, Putin’s face is expressionless. Bush translates the icy coolness of the Russian president by using two colors: one for the top of his face where the light strikes his head, and the other for the lower half in the shadow. The complete lack of any emotion in Putin’s steely gaze is again, the brutally honest depiction of a face that Bush must have grown accustomed to over his years serving as president.

Ultimately, the faces of power are not grandiose. They aren’t all-mighty. They aren’t even serious. They are just people. And Bush must share the realization that most people do when leaving a job: it’s all about the people.

For better or worse…

How will I go down in history?

Along with his other colleagues, Bush also wanted to immortalize his own status as president in one self-portrait. Nothing indicates that he is president, except for the fact that he is wearing a suit. And the look on his face. A look of confidence, assurance, and kindness that Bush wants to project to the American people.

Tragically, he won’t be able to project that image to the ones whom he had the honor of governing. Instead, he seems to be addressing later generations that didn’t know him as president but will read about him in the history books.

Like other presidents, Bush is accutely aware of his own position in history. And whereas others try to depict themselves in a new light with biographies, Bush takes to the brush to show a side of himself he must feel was too often overshadowed by the crises of the presidency: his well-meaning nature, his proximity to the American people, his belief and confidence in their future. Away from the heat of the moment, Bush can also rebuild his own image that he was too often not in control of. Or at least attempt to ensure that posterity will look onto his presidency with greater compassion and respect.

He’s the president I would have liked to be…